My mother always began preparations on Wednesday for our abundant home-cooked Thanksgiving feast with the main dish of turkey, ham, chicken, duck, or goose–sometimes more than one. Deviled eggs, black olives, pickles and cranberry sauce nestled among bowls brimming with homemade dressing, mashed potatoes or potato salad, and green beans. Mincemeat, apple, and sweet potato pies covered the kitchen counter. Occasionally, a fresh coconut cake towered over the pies, giving it bragging rights. Mama made room for other side dishes brought by my married siblings just before noon. Papa was serious about the precise time. We ate at noon by his pocket watch—not one minute earlier or later.
The adults sat with Papa around the food-laden table in the dining room. Mama seated the younger children at the square drop-leaf table in the kitchen. I ate in the living room with my twin sister and nieces and nephews our age, balancing our plates on our knees. Mama served everyone first and ate later. After lunch, the women washed and dried dishes. Children played on the covered porch. Men gathered in the tiny living room to talk. A couple of my brothers drifted outside for an afternoon smoke, forbidden inside our home.
The night before Thanksgiving, the smell of chicken frying in a cast-iron skillet wafted from the kitchen. The sweet smell of fried apple turnovers replaced the aroma of baking pies. I listened from the open doorway as my parents talked about working on Thanksgiving Day.
Oh, no! It can’t be!
The next morning after breakfast, Mama packed the refrigerated chicken and turnovers in a sturdy cardboard box with eating utensils. She covered it with a tablecloth just as Frank, my oldest brother, arrived to take us to work.
I stepped down from the old Model A Ford running board. On the ground, I pulled the strap of my cotton sack over my head and under my left arm and shook eight feet of canvas between two rows of late-blooming white cotton basking in the early morning sun.
Five minutes before twelve, Mama stopped picking and spread the tablecloth on a patch of flat ground. Papa removed his hat, wiped his perspiring forehead with a handkerchief and checked his pocket watch. At noon he nodded to Frank to say a blessing for the food.
“Thank you, Lord, for family gathered here on this Thanksgiving Day. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies so we can finish this field before dark. Bless the farmer who allowed us to work today. Prosper him abundantly for his kindness. Amen.”
Bless the farmer? Without him we’d be home heaping our plates with turkey and dressing and eyeing the tantalizing desserts, not eating cold fried chicken in a cotton field. My complaining thoughts were interrupted by my nephew’s voice.
“Please pass another piece of Grandma’s fried chicken,” he said. “It’s the best I ever ate. And, could you hand me a couple more fried apple pies. Grandma knows how to make them just right.”
The next year, the Wednesday cooking rituals returned to our home. About thirty of us gathered around the dining room at five minutes before twelve. My father checked his pocket watch. At precisely noon, he bowed his head and gave thanks for the abundant meal. While children waited for their plates to be filled before moving to the kitchen to eat, adult talk turned to the previous Thanksgiving meal in the cotton field. One of my brothers mentioned Frank’s prayer.
“No more picking cotton for that farmer. He did so well after that prayer, he bought a cotton-picking machine and put all of us out of work.”
Posted at 12 noon, Pacific Standard Time, Thanksgiving Day, in honor of my father’s pocket watch time.
Disclosure: Revised third annual post, my Thanksgiving tradition, adapted from my original story in Double Take (Carr Twins & Co., 2014).